Why the true cost of cheap meat could be future pandemics

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A vet prepares antibiotics for caged and confined factory farmed pigs | Credit: Smederevac

Just a few months ago, it would have seemed a stretch of the imagination; a pandemic from wildlife in a wet market in China causing billions of people to be locked down across the world? Few could have imagined how life would change so drastically in such a short space of time following the emergence of the Coronavirus, Covid-19. Thought to have originated in bats, the coronavirus most likely jumped to humans via an intermediary, a scaly mammal akin to anteaters and armadillos called a pangolin.

Factory Farming: A Future Black Swan Event

The Wuhan coronavirus is the latest example of an infection that jumped from animals into humans – and when infections do this, they can be particularly deadly. Three out of four new or emerging infectious diseases in people come from animals, including Swine flu, Avian flu, HIV, Ebola, influenza, MERS and SARS. New and devastating disease outbreaks have become known as ‘Black Swan’ events, a metaphor for surprise catastrophes.

The human cost of the Coronavirus is unimaginable. Truly awful. Something no one wants repeated. A Black Swan event beyond compare.

Hens in battery cages | Credit: Compassion in World Farming

To avoid nightmares being repeated, it is essential to identify reservoirs of future Black Swan events.

One of those is factory farming.

At Compassion in World Farming, we know only too well that incarcerating animals in caged, crammed and confined conditions on factory farms provides the ideal breeding ground for new and more deadly strains of virus. Swine flu and highly pathogenic Avian flu are just two examples.

Habitat Destruction = Disease Risk

At the same time, the global appetite for ever more meat means clearing more forests worldwide for farmland, encroaching on wild lands and their novel viruses.

An aerial photograph showing the extent of Amazon deforestation to make way of industrial agriculture | Credit: luoman

Food production already covers nearly half the useable land surface of the planet, more than four-fifths of that being devoted to producing meat and dairy. As the global hunger for animal products increases, so agriculture encroaches further into the world’s remaining wildlands – Wilderness areas, Rainforests, Savannah, rich in wildlife and oxygen-giving woodlands.

As humanity pushes further into the natural world, felling tropical rainforests and erasing pristine habitats, so we encounter new species of life, but also viruses. Heightening the risk of new Black Swan events.

As David Quammen, author of Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Pandemic, wrote in the New York Times, “We invade tropical forests and other wild landscapes, which harbour so many species of animals and plants — and within those creatures, so many unknown viruses. We cut the trees; we kill the animals or cage them and send them to markets. We disrupt ecosystems, and we shake viruses loose from their natural hosts. When that happens, they need a new host. Often, we are it.”

The Unacceptable Cost of Cheap Meat

A big reason for this encroachment on nature is the rising demand for cheap protein from animals, fuelling agricultural expansion and pushing ever deeper into marginal lands and wild spaces.

Grazing animals, especially cattle, are blamed for destruction of the rainforest and the march of the agricultural frontier, yet, what I discovered in Brazil is that global demand for ‘cheap’ meat from factory farms is the real driver.

Longstanding cattle pastures on the savannah plains of Brazil’s agricultural interior are being ploughed up for feed crops like soya. The demand pushes up land prices, meaning cattle farmers can afford to buy more land elsewhere, deeper in the forest. Scientists call this a ‘land-use cascade’. It accelerates rainforest destruction.

Much of the world’s arable land is now shared with factory farmed animals. Forty per cent of our entire grain harvest is fed to industrially reared animals. Globally, that’s equivalent to an area of land the size of the entire European Union or half the United States of America. Growing food – renamed ‘feed’ – using heavy applications of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Wiping away nature. Shaking free their viruses in search of new hosts.

Yet, because so much of the world’s harvest is squandered in this way – feeding it to factory farmed animals who then waste the majority of the food value in conversion to ‘cheap’ meat, milk and eggs – we encroach on more forests far away.

Which brings us into contact with a new array of wild animals, plants and viruses.

In short, our treatment of animals and the natural world risks new and deadly disease pandemics.

Whilst loading the dice of sustainability against us for tomorrow, we are literally encroaching on our future.

In this way, we put ourselves at risk of a fresh pandemic every day.

Credit: Richard Dunwoody / Compassion In World Farming

A Better Future

Ending factory farming and reducing consumption of meat and dairy are essential if we are to ensure a better day for animals, people and the planet.

Thank you for being with us in creating that new, more compassionate future for all.

It has never been so important to come together and create major change for the animal world and for each other.


Compassion in World Farming is calling on the world’s most influential organisations, including The World Bank, the United Nations and the World Health Organisation, to replace factory farming with a food system that respects animals, nurtures our planet, and reduces the risk of pandemics. 

Please, use this link to sign our petition and join the call for a future without factory farming –

Thank you.

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